5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Top ten hotel rooms with a view

Hotels aren’t the sum of travel, but the right hotel can bring magic to a journey. Friendly employees, amazing furnishings, and great locations can all make a good holiday great. And an exceptional view, above and beyond the rest, can stick in one’s memory forever. Here are ten hotels strewn around the world, each with ridiculously stunning views.

1. Shearwater Resort, Saba. Shearwater’s Cottage Rooms, which overlook the resort’s cliffside pool from an altitude of 2000 feet and sport views of the ocean and several neighboring islands (St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, and Nevis) are in a league of their own. See above for evidence. Shearwater’s owners also recommend the views from their Ocean View Suite. Cottage Rooms from $175; Ocean View Suite from $250.

2. Longitude 131, Ayers Rock Resort, Australia. The tents at Longitude 131 at Ayers Rock feature heart-stopping panoramic views of this most iconic of Australian sights. This is real fantasy territory, with rates well beyond feasibility for most. From A$4080 for two for two nights ($4095).

3. Hotel on Rivington, New York, New York. The corner king rooms at this Lower East Side outpost of extravagance have floor-to-ceiling glass walls affording astounding views of the city. Aim for a room on a higher floor. From $379.

4. Hotel de Crillon, Paris, France. Terribly exorbitant, yes–not sure that a room at this price point should ever be recommended–but the views are exquisite here. Do you best to nab a room with a view over the Place de la Concorde to the Eiffel Tower. From €630 ($875).

5. Sheraton Iguazú Resort and Spa, Iguazú Falls, Argentina. The only hotel inside the Iguazú National Park offers awe-inspiring views of the falls themselves. The Falls View rooms, all with balconies, are perfect for the view-minded. From $255.

6. Campi ya Kanzi, Mtito Andei, Kenya. Campi ya Kanzi lies in a 400 square-mile are of Maasai-run land in southern Kenya. Mount Kilimanjaro is 35 miles away from the camp site, which consists of six tented cottages and two suites. Suites run $1600 for two; single occupancy $900.

7. The Intercontinental, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Stunning Hong Kong Harbor provides the world one of its most exciting skylines, and a harbourview room at the Intercontinental is one of the best places to glimpse it. From around HK$2600 ($335).

8. The Fairmont Banff Springs, Banff, Alberta, Canada. The most iconic of Canada’s mountain lodges, the Fairmont Banff Springs is in a league of its own as far as picturesque placement is concerned. Many rooms offer extraordinary views as well. Book a valley view room (not a mountain view room) to take full advantage of the Rockies’ scenic majesty. From around C$439 ($437).

9. Explora, Torres del Paine, Chile. Gorgeous if minimalist modernism features here in the wilds of Chilean Patagonia, courtesy of famed Chilean architect Germán del Sol. Views of Macizo del Paine are drop-dead extraordinary. They’re also most definitely not cheap. Four nights will run $5840 for two.

10. La Haut Plantation, St. Lucia. The least expensive of the options here is this reasonable stunner, which has great views of St. Lucia’s famous Pitons. Even the least expensive Standard Garden rooms here boast incredible views of the Pitons. From $120 in low season.

A list like this one is of course necessarily quite subjective, and my evaluation here is designed to suggest and expose more than it is intended to lay down the law. Have a hotel view in mind that you think belongs on this list? Add it in the comments below!

(Images provided by hotels, except for the view from the Sheraton Iguazú Resort and Spa [Flickr / Tran’s World Productions] and view from the Fairmont Banff Springs [Flickr / dbaron]

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Uluru remains open for climbers

Last summer we reported that the Australian national parks service had recommended to the government that Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, be closed to climbers. Officials reasoned that climbing on the giant monolith was a safety risk and increased traffic there was causing accelerated erosion. Even more importantly, Uluru is held as a sacred site to the Aboriginal tribes in the region, and they have been very outspoken against allowing climbing there.

At the time of our original story, the proposal was going to be open for public discussion for two months before getting passed on to the Australian Parliament, who would make the final decision on the future of the Rock. Last week, the government handed down their decision, allowing climbing to continue on Uluru for now, but saying that it could yet be closed off in the future.

Uluru is a World Heritage Site and one of Australia’s most recognizable natural resources, rising 1,142 feet above the desert that surrounds it. Every year, more than 350,000 visitors flock to the monolith, with 100,000 of those electing to scale its sandstone walls. All of those visitors has caused environmental issues however, with trash and human waste littering the area.

The Australian government set down three very specific criteria that need to be met in order to ensure that Uluru remains open for climbing. First, they want to see the number of visitors who climb the rock drop from its current 38% down to just 20%. They also want to discourage climbers from coming to the place for the sole purpose of making a climb, and finally, they want to develop new experiences for visitors to experience, including ones that highlight the Aboriginal culture.

So, for now, climbing on Uluru is safe, and Parliament has promised that they will give at least an 18-month notice before they decide to close it in the future. Adventure travelers who still want to go to the top of the monolith are allowed to do so, but they should be prepared to tread lightly and expect to see fewer people on the routes to the summit.

Outback Australia: Big Fun in Little Alice

It’s rare that a town with a population under 30,000 is known by everyone in a country as big as Australia. But Alice Springs is no ordinary town. It’s defined less by its size and more by its location and quirky nature. Known colloquially as just Alice, the town is considered the capital of Centralia (the efficient abbreviation for Central Australia). If you’re going to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), or anywhere else in the Red Center, odds are you will be starting or ending your journey in Alice Springs. How does a tiny outpost in the middle of the desert become known the world over? By doing everything the hard way and with a big smile.

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Alice Springs is an Outback town, plain and simple. It’s 1,500km from Darwin and Adelaide and almost 2,500km from Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It is in the middle of one humongous country. It has survived and thrived for decades, however, thanks to ingenuity, creativity and, in recent years, a tourism industry that has capitalized on those traits.

So, you’ve found yourself in the middle of Australia with a few days to kill. Now what? Well, expect plenty of fun, for one thing, and some of the most breathtaking views you’ve ever seen.

  • Palm Valley ToursA bumpy 130km drive to the southwest of Alice is an amazing natural wonder that will make you believe that your eyes are deceiving you. In the middle of Finke Gorge National Park, in what appears to be a wide expanse the barren Outback, is a valley filled with lush, healthy palm trees. Relying on underground water supplies and only minimal amounts of rainfall, these palms have flourished for thousands of years. The tour bus takes you along unsealed, rugged roads and through some of the most striking landscapes in the entire Territory.
  • Alice Springs School of the AirSince when is a school a tourist destinations? Since this became the first school to communicate with students in remote areas via peddle-powered radios. The Northern Territory was, and still is, a region built around cattle stations and massive, remote plots of land occupied by very few people. As such, children are often hundreds of kilometers from the nearest school. The Alice Springs School of the Air was the first school to connect students and teachers utilizing the technology of the day. They have since upgraded to computers, webcams and chatrooms to allow students to attend classes with their peers who are scattered throughout the Territory. The visitors center shares the fantastic history of the school’s growth, development and the many innovations that have allowed it to educate the youth of rural Australia for decades.
  • Royal Flying Doctor ServiceThink setting up education in an area as remote as as the Northern Territory is difficult, try providing medical service to those sequestered locations. What do you do if you’re injured on a farm that’s 1,000km from the nearest town or hospital. You call the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was founded in Alice in 1928. The visitor center in Alice is also the dispatch office, where people with medical situations can call for a doctor to be flown out to treat anything from traumatic injuries to flu outbreaks to childbirths. You can see the history of the RFDS, as well as how calls are processed and proceeds from sales in the gift shop help keep this essential service operating.
  • Outback BallooningI’d always been curious about flying in a hot air balloon but turned off by the high price of the experience. Also, while I’m not afraid of heights, I am a firm believer that only fruit should be collected in a basket. People deserve a metal casing. But after watching the sunrise over the Outback on the outskirts of Alice while floating several hundred feet above the ground, I realized that ballooning is the only way to travel. Or, the only way to see the majesty of an amazingly desolate yet beautiful landscape seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And the champagne breakfast afterward is sure to settle the nerves of anyone who was left jelly-legged from the ride.
  • Anzac Hill – Apparently, every single destination in the Northern Territory has a “perfect” spot to watch the sunset. In Alice, there is no better place than Anzac Hill (partially because there is no other place – Alice is flat other than this one bump). Atop the hill sits a war memorial (ANZAC stands for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) and a remarkable 360° view of the little town that could. Wrap up your trip to the Red Center by watching the sun sink behind the MacDonnell Ranges that lurk in the distance.

Alice is home to countless indigenous art galleries and plenty of pubs and restaurants serving bush tucker ranging from yams to wallaby. It’s also the only city in Centralia with an airport that hosts flights from virtually any other city in Australia that you may be coming from or going to.

You may have noticed that Uluru is noticeably absent from this list. The rock is nearly 500km from Alice and is by no means a day trip. While Alice is the closest city to Uluru, they are neighbors in the sense that anything within 1,000km is your closest neighbor when you’re in the Outback. If you’re planning a trip to Alice and Uluru, expect one of your days to be spent in transit from one to the other.

In a quirky country like Australia, it takes a lot for a small town to stand out. Alice Springs has done more than that. It has prospered and evolved from a tiny outpost in the bush to a popular tourist destination for people the world over. And there’s one event that draws the biggest crowds to this little hamlet. A regatta in the town’s dry river bed. Confused? Well, check back tomorrow to learn more.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.

Disgusting tourists use Uluru as a toilet

The otherworldly red rock of Uluru (Ayers Rock) that rises above a flat expanse of Australia‘s Northern Territory has long been considered a sacred site to the native Aboriginal people. Against their wishes, over 100,000 people climb the rock, which is just over 1100 feet tall, each year. Recently, the National Parks service proposed a plan that would close Uluru to climbers.

There were many reasons given for the proposed climbing ban, including the site’s significance to the Aboriginal people, increased erosion on the rock, and the danger involved in climbing the rock(it is estimated that around 35 people die while attempting to scale it each year). A guide for the Anangu Waai tour company has now cited another reason – people are using the sacred spot as a toilet. After they get to the top, they take a “bathroom break” out of sight before starting their descent. It’s an idea so revolting that you hope it can’t possibly be true, but the director of the National Parks has backed it up. He says that in busy times, the levels of E. coli at the base of Uluru reach dangerous levels as the filth washes down the rock with the rain.

The Northern Territory government opposes the proposal. If Uluru were to be closed to hikers, fewer people might visit, and the area’s tourism industry could suffer. As per usual, environmental and social ideals become tangled with economic concerns and the country’s Environmental Minister will have to consider both when he makes his decision on a 10-year plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which he says will be made “in due course”. Looks like it you want to climb Uluru, you should get there now….but please hit the bathroom before you go.

[via Times Online]